Computer Entertainment
Thirty-Five Years From Today

A solo spoken word performance

by Bruce Sterling


Story Copyright (C) 2008, Bruce Sterling.
Images Copyright (C) 2008, Rudy Rucker.
5,600 Words.


(Speaker places a white cloth napkin, a black paper napkin, an ashtray and a salt shaker on the podium. The speaker wears black pants, a white silk shirt and a geometrically patterned tie with small metal knobs.)

Hello, thanks for having me in to your event this morning. And thanks for that introduction, but, well, there’s a small problem with it. I’m not Bruce Sterling. I know you were expecting Bruce Sterling here today, but he couldn’t make it. He sent me here instead. Hi.

The reason Bruce Sterling couldn’t make it is because, in the year 2043, Bruce Sterling is 89 years old. Dr. Sterling is a little too frail to get in a time machine and travel into the past to talk to game developers. Still, somebody had to do that. So Dr. Sterling called on me.

 I’m one of his graduate students... and I volunteered, or at least I sort of volunteered, to journey back in time, using some of our new technical methods. That wasn’t exactly easy, but, well, here I am. I’m fully briefed, and I got a lot to say to you.

Before I get started about computer entertainment thirty-five years from today, though... even though it’s a very interesting topic, and I’m writing my thesis on it.… I feel like I should level with you here. I think maybe I should tell you a few things... confidentially.

Me, you don’t know much about. You don’t even know my name. All you need to know is that I’m a time traveller. Bruce Sterling, he’s a contemporary of yours. You might be disappointed that he’s not here, but Bruce Sterling, in the year 2043, at age 89... He’s almost 90... No. You really wouldn’t want this guy making public appearances. No, not here in the year 2008.

You see, Bruce Sterling used to write a whole lot of science fiction about biotechnology and life extension techniques. In the 2040s, we’ve actually got some of that stuff. It’s not that lame crap that he made up, because it’s not science fiction any more. It’s real. It’s real like Viagra and Rogaine is real. And, yeah, Bruce Sterling was an early adopter. Just like he was with computers.

Bruce Sterling was one of the first guys to jump on that kind of untested, radical technology. He’s kind of the bug-ridden alpha rollout. That’s why he’s 89 years old even though he never took proper care of himself. So: our life extension biotechnology, it’s very high technology, it’s radical technology, but it works... Sorta... Especially the skin and hair, those turned out to be the easy parts... So Bruce Sterling has got the fresh, dewy skin of a ten year old child. And he’s got hair—he’s got LOTS of hair, like scary, black, spiky amounts of hair... but still, he’s also almost 90.

So he’s kind of deaf, and half blind, and he’s got a walker. He’s got a Segway and a personal robot. He’s not senile, exactly, but since Dr. Sterling was a cyberpunk, historically speaking, he also chose to do a lot of radical, mind-twisting, stuff to his neurons. Not “cyberspace brain plugs,” exactly, because Dr. Sterling is not crazy but... if you had to pick one word for how this guy looks and acts in the year 2043, I think that word would be “post-human.”

Now, I know that Austin has a lot of weird-looking people. In 2043, believe it or not, Austin is still very weird. Because they kept it that way. But if the Bruce Sterling from 2043 was walking around here in public, he’d get arrested. Right away. They’d send a SWAT team for him with tasers and nets. It’s that weird. Really.

And you know what? Compared to the rest of you people in this room—the ones who survived till 2043? Bruce Sterling looks pretty good. He looks respectable and well-groomed, compared to you guys. He’s all literary. He’s my professor.

So, you know, that explains why Bruce Sterling didn’t come. But he sure had lots of good advice for me about this speech. The first thing he told me was, “It’s all completely real—but they’re not gonna believe any of it.” Game designers are a technically literate crowd. But they’ve never heard anything about, for instance, quantum transtemporal greeble technology.

So they’re not gonna believe that you’re actually from the future. That’s what Dr. Sterling said to me. Use technical demos, he said. Unless you show them some actual, working, hands-on technology from the future, right there in public, on stage, they’re gonna think it’s all just vaporware and sci-fi hype. They’re computer people, they’re skeptics, he said. They have to be skeptics, that’s how they survive.

So, show them your personal computer, he told me. Why would that be exciting? I said. Because my personal computer is like a towel. It’s cheap and old and everyday, and I’ve always had one, and it’s like the dullest thing in the world. No, he said, in 2008 they’re computer pioneers. They still believe that computers are exciting. They’re on the electronic frontier, with arrows in their backs to prove it. They don’t get it that computers in 2043 are boring objects of everyday life, like bricks and forks and toothbrushes. And towels.

So, I did some careful research on that subject. I realized that, yeah, for an old-fashioned audience like you, a mid-21st century computer is pretty amazing. So here it is. (Speaker pulls cloth napkin from podium).

This is my General Electric Pocket Mediator. This one’s about five years old, it’s a student’s model. Personal mediators are a stable technology in my time, we don’t have to fuss with them much. Unfortunately it doesn’t have full functionality here in 2008, because we don’t have the cloud yet. As soon as I reached here, my Mediator reached out for the cloud to reload its apps and OS... and it tapped into something called “Window-Vista.” Then it just plain gave up. It’s gone completely limp now. There’s nothing left here but this frozen screen-saver pattern.

So I’m gonna have to kind of walk you through its many functionalities. Bear with me here. Moore’s law says computer power doubles every eighteen months—since I’m from 35 years in the future, that means twenty three doublings. So a laptop from my time is the rough equivalent of about eight million, three hundred and eighty-eight thousand, six hundred eight of your best laptops. But, like I said, this is just a cheap student’s model, several years behind the times. So it’s feeble. It’s no more than thirty two thousand, seven hundred and sixty eight of your computers.

As you can see, my computer is a network. Literally a network, because all the components are woven. It’s all fabric. The power cables are superconductive fiber—they’re charged up with ambient light through quantum solar nanodots. It also has shape-changing piezo-electric threads woven through it—threads that move, they’re a lot like muscle tissue—so it can expand, contract, fold itself up, even flap and fly around the room.

So I’ve got speakers in here—I just stiffen the fabric, it’s like a diaphragm—and of course I have cameras. It’s a telephone of course. I can get news on it... I can even run some old-fashioned virtual reality apps. It’s my General Electric Mediator. All the media converged into this device. It ate all the analog media. There isn’t any other kind of media left.

When I need to do text entry, a little keyboard pops up— and it says QWERTY on it. Nobody ever gets rid of QWERTY. Ever. Any more than anybody ever gets rid of General Electric. Did you know that Thomas Edison founded General Electric? General Electric was never a fancy company with a ridiculous, childish name, like Google or Micro-Soft, or Yahoo! Yahoooooo! Yahoooooo! Ha haha! What on Earth were they thinking?

General Electric is ageless! That’s why General Electric is still around in 2043, and they’re making commodity computers. Like they make refrigerators and irons. And towels.

So naturally, you people would want to know—do people develop games for this? Yeah. Of course they do. I mean, not the kind of games built for flat glass screens. We don’t do those any more. They’re cumbersome, they’re like trying to drive a covered wagon. We don’t pretend that a glass screen is some kind of window and there’s some kind of virtual world on the other side. That idea sounds silly to us.

It’s all the same world. It’s always been all the same world. It just changes some, that’s all.

Generally what we do is—we just kind of hang the towel up in midair and gaze through it. All the light that hits the far side of the Mediator is just passed right through, except that the image has all been tagged and altered. I think you would call that “augmented reality.” We don’t call it that, because we believe that reality is real. Still, you can have a lot of fun with a game interface for everything you see.

Of course, the real world has scales. Reality has some real physical dimensions. So we’ve got body games, room games, house games, neighborhood games, city games, nation games, global games. We’ve even got space probe games for romantic geeks who like outer space.

And we’ve got seventy years of computer games. Seventy! That’s what we’ve got that you don’t have—we have a huge game heritage. That we got from you. All kinds of dead platforms, dead intellectual properties—dead stuff is always being revived and rediscovered and re-released.

You probably never heard of the game “Tetris.” It’s far ahead of your time. But this is incredibly sophisticated, elegant puzzle game. It’s made out of little blocks! These different-shaped pieces start falling down my Mediator—kind of like this—and I have to grab them on the touchscreen , with my fingers, and try to jam ‘em into the holes on the bottom. It took some really sophisticated design to build that. It’s incredibly popular, it spread like wildfire. Because it’s just so compelling! Really, I can’t keep my hands off it!

Dr Sterling was particularly eager that I should show you “Tetris.” He knew you’d be impressed. It’s a pity I can’t get it to boot on this cheap Mediator, because, although I don’t like to brag about my gaming skills, I’m pretty good at “Tetris.”

He also said that I had to show you some truly advanced computing. Not this kind, with the Mediator, which is so common and boring. I mean the kind of computing that we ourselves find impressive, in the year 2043.

So, yeah. I brought you some. I had to kind of borrow this from the University computer-science lab. They’re not gonna miss their high-tech device here, because I didn’t actually steal it—it just kind of travelled back in time... I know that’s complicated. Luckily, Dr Sterling is a science fiction writer, they get it about these time-travel paradox issues. Everything’s under control.

(Speaker produces a salt shaker and raps it on the podium.)

Let me pry off the quantum shield here... Careful-careful... Whew! Okay: this is nanotechnology. Only, we don’t call it “nanotech,” because that word sounds old-fashioned to us. But this is nano in real life. Every one of these little computational crystals inside here... Okay, you do know about transistors, right? You guys still use transistors. These aren’t transistors. They’re what we call “greebles.” Do you know what a Higgs boson is?

Okay, great, you’ve heard of the Higgs boson already. Excellent! But you don’t have a domesticated Higgs boson industry. We do. We have quantum computing. Greebles don’t have bits. They have qubits. Instead of silicon transistors, greebles have nano quantum transpositioning. Instead of being trapped in one physical space, quantum greebles are capable of being in several different spaces at one time. I mean, not over huge distances, but atoms are mostly empty space, right? So if you put some quantum uncertainty into the position of an atom, then you can pack a lot of qubits, like several thousand, into the space formerly occupied by just one bit!

I know that’s hard to follow. So, you know, watch me demonstrate this. This is gonna blow your mind. I just take these crystal ubiquity units—every one of these crystals has got as much networking power as an entire server-farm!

I know this is a technical audience here, so I want to give you some of the cool stats on these crystal shards! Most of them are X5-GSPS qubit units, which are QMC I/O modules featuring a two 64- bit GSPS A/Ds with Quirtex5 FPGA cores, DRAM and SRAM memory, and eight-lane host interface. You’re still with me, right? And that very high performance qubit core provides for highly demanding applications such as radically distributed sensory ad-hoc and emergent ubiquity apps.

The integration of the IO, memory and host interface with the FPGA enables some real-time, 4d, augmented signal processing at extremely high cloud-throughput exceeding 300 GMACs per second.

Really! No kidding! Now for the demo. So, I just shake some of these crystal shards loose from the transpositional cryo-core. Then I distribute them in a local cloud. Look, I’ve got plenty: Some here, some there. (Speaker pulls a “reader device” from shirt pocket.) Okay, yeah, that’s up, that’s working great! Now they’re assembling their autonomous ad-hoc cloud! Of course it’s all spread-spectrum... there’s no such thing as a bandwith problem with these... See, I just built a small network, right here, that’s about the size of the entire Internet in 2004. Roughly.

So let’s see what the sensors have to say... I’m so happy this is working here in public...

Holy cow! Can you believe the toxin load inside this building? The air and even the carpet here is full of cancer-causing agents!

Okay, who ate Mexican food? All of you? How can you people survive that kind of biological assault? Aren’t you dying of cancer? Oh wait. You ARE dying of cancer.

I guess that wasn’t very tactful of me... (looks warily at readout). Oh my God. Those bacteria counts... is that your skin? Those stats are scaring me ... I think I need shut this thing down. … (Struggles)

Okay. Hell. That’s not good. It’s got a cloud-based shutdown sequence, but I have no cloud here... Okay, no worries, let’s just take it easy... I’ve got a vector field. Okay? I’ve got a vector field membrane. Here it is.

We’re cool. As soon as I wrap the core up in the container field here... I haven’t done this, but it ought to cut way down on the zero-point radiation... Right, okay, here we go... I’ve only done this twice.… Jesus. Ow, it’s hot... Damn...

The tricky part is assembling this so these vector lines on the shield can match the quantum field lines.... And the bottom of the unit, that’s the real tricky part... Zero-point energy.... It’s not really ZERO point energy, it’s more like point zero zero zero one, close to zero, but with greebles you can just overlap that... Okay. Okay good, there. Just stay there. Is any smoke rising? You guys see smoke there? No? Okay, the unit’s cooling off.

I wanted to pass this thing through the audience, but, uhm... the quantum positioning isn’t holding steady. Just any second now this unit is gonna transfer back to the original space- time coordinates... If we’re lucky that’s going to be very quiet and easy. You won’t hear anything, you won’t feel anything... Okay, wait. It’s stuck. It’s hung up. Damn. Well... I shouldn’t do this but... (Speaker smashes the object, which disappears).

Okay, we’re safe now. The hack worked. It’s like Sir Arthur Clarke said a hundred years ago: “Any sufficiently advanced technology is indistinguishable from magic.”

Of course it’s not magic, it’s technology. It just looks that way... Actually, now that I smashed it, it’s garbage. Any sufficiently advanced technology is indistinguishable from garbage. (Throws dead napkin into audience). Especially when they’re fresh out of the lab. I hope nobody tells Sir Arthur that. Is he still alive? No? Well, we still read him. We think he’s great!

So, those were my two live demonstrations. I hope they’ve proved my bona fides to you here. (Sucks a finger). Man, I’m kinda scorched... So, I wish I could stop my speech now and just take questions about the future, but... Well, I already know your questions. Because I’m from the future.

It’s like this: you meet a time traveller. So, okay, Mr Time Traveller, predict the future for me! So I can get rich! That’s what they always ask: its’s very predictable. You people are in game development. Right? So what’s the part of game development that’s really gonna take off in the future? Where’s the part that’s a big success, that’s really gonna make a whole lot of money? Is it web apps? Console sales? Games for handhelds?

“Massively multiplayer online role playing games?” I don’t know why you guys can’t invent a better word for that idea. We just call them “crowd games.” “The crowd on the cloud.” That’s so simple. It’s easy. Why didn’t you do it the easy way? That’s the part I don’t understand!

So, in 2043, who are the richest guys in computer entertainment? The moguls. The zillionaires. Well, I can tell you that, because it’s obvious. It’s the bankers. The bankers and the financiers.

Entertainers can make a lot of money. Entertainers can hit a windfall, they can ship a lot of games, they can get wealthy. But entertainers don’t KEEP that money. They’re not money-management people. Money management people make a lot of money.

Well, certain games have internal economies. Some games actually have currencies, and loans, and markets, and real-estate holdings. So, guys who want to make a lot of money go into the areas of games where people make money. And they’re not game players. They are bankers.

I want to read you part of one of these games. I can read this verbatim right out of the game FAQ in 2043.

“Our gamebank services allow online retailers to access a hosted payment application that uses customers’ aggregated account information. While they share technologies, our system, Avatar Checkout, has a much longer list of fully interactive commercial features than our main rival, Indo-Global Simple-Pay of Bangalore. For instance, our Avatar Checkout can preferentially identify fellow guild members shopping on the merchant’s site, and spontaneously offer them a preferential heads-up on a simple “1-click experience” that allows customers to place orders, even from distant game environments on other shards. Avatar Checkout also calculates shipping rates and sales taxes, supports merchant promotions, and creates packing slips and RFID tracking and logistical support.”

But wait: it gets even more fascinating! “Our in-game credit default swaps are highly competitive. The basic rate is 2.9% plus 30 cents for orders of 10,000 platinum or more. Pricing for hedge fundng under 10,000 platinum is 5% plus 5 cents. Volume discounts are 2.5% plus 30 cents for monthly charges of 30,000 platinum to 100,000 platinum; 2.2% plus 30 cents for monthly charges of 100,000 platinum to 200,000 platinum, and 1.9% plus 30 cents for monthly charges in the European zone or the Asian theaters.”

Okay. That’s a direct quote from your future. Does that sound like fun game-play to you? It’s almost exactly as much fun as investment banking. It’s is a slight improvement on your old- fashioned banking, because when you put a gaming graphic front-end on financial services, some people will save for retirement. Not like you guys.

However, basically, financial services are boring. They’re incredibly boring, deadly boring. They’re not cool fun games. Bankers and investment people, thrifty rich guys, they don’t consider their work to be cool fun. They consider it something that gives you ulcers, and that you want to stop soon, so that you can have a big yacht.

For most people, this kind of electronic commerce is a kind of torture-game. You have to keep playing because you go broke if you stop. But are these banker guys rich? Yeah. They’re really rich, hella rich, much richer than your richest people. Are they as rich like normal bankers were rich? Can I break this to you? They gaming bankers ARE the normal bankers. In 2043 there isn’t any other kind. The old kind are all extinct.

Okay, you’re a gaming guy and a creative guy. You develop games. Are you gonna be as rich as these bankers, even though they’re playing inside your games, on platforms that you yourself developed? No, you’re not. Because they are money managers and not creatives like you, and they are going to be much, much richer than you. They can easily buy you and maintain your adventure game as a kind of graphic front end, the way old-fashioned banks used to have some marble pillars in the front. Because they’re willing to make money and you’re not serious about it.

So, you know, that’s financial reality in tomorrow’s computer entertainment industry.

(Speaker lights a cigarette.)

I know this is a smoke-free zone. This is Austin, I know all that. But this is not a cigarette. In the future we’re legally required to smoke these. They help us repair the lung damage from the climate change.

So, right, where was I? Oh yeah... what other questions do smart people ask time travellers? The other frequently asked questions. Okay, they ask: can I have one of those future cigarettes? No. You can’t. These are mine.

The other question they ask—if they’re smart—is, what is that I did not see? What was I NOT thinking about? What is that blindsided me? What is that I couldn’t see in my industry? The future development I just didn’t understand. The wild card, the black swan.

Well, I can tell you about that problem. Although this is going to be kind of hard for you to get your heads around. Because, you know, if you could see it coming, then I wouldn’t have to tell you that you couldn’t see it coming. Right? It’s one of those time- travel paradox things. I’ll try to make it simple.

First, “computer entertainment.” What is it, what does it mean? Well, it’s got computers, and it’s got entertainment. That’s your chosen line of work, that’s what you call it. That’s how you define what you do.

Well, that’s not, in fact, what you do. Those are just two old-fashioned words that you still use, about what you do. First, you can forget the computers. The word “computer,” in the future, that just holds you back. Some of you already get this. Sort of. You get it that it means not just computers but also console systems. Or handheld systems. Or phones. Or desktops and laptops and palmtops. So you almost escaped from your mental computer bottle. You escaped that computer bottle and you went and hid inside a bunch of other little bottles.

Really, it’s not about the bottles. I don’t have any bottles. As you can see, I have a towel here. You’d be better off if you started thinking hard about other phenomena. Here’s some hints: interactive billboards... traffic systems... satellites... cars.… street-lights... credit cards... drones... street video... doorknobs... Do you know how many embedded chips there are, already built into doorknobs?

Try to think really hard about just how many embedded chips there are, already, now, all around you. Then stop thinking about chips, because chips mean computers. You must transcend that. You must think about a very different kind of far-out hippie Zen computational paradigm, like paint, and smoke, and clouds. (Speaker blows cigarette smoke.) And ambient, and pervasive, and ubiquitous. And then put your hands together, like this. And say “Om.”

Why? Because that makes you look stupid. You see how stupid that looks? How gullible and kind of hopeless we all look, going “Ommmmmm...?” Well, that’s how stupid EVERYBODY looks, in historical hindsight, after 35 years. How stupid can people be? “Gosh, Mr Nolan Bushnell—why would anyone want to play PingPong, on a TV?” That’s how stupid some people looked thirty-five years ago. When your industry was born.

Well, thirty-five years from now, in the future— you’re almost that kind of stupid. Not quite that stupid, because at least you’ve got Google, but you’re in that ballpark. Definitely.

“Computer entertainment.…”

Okay. That brings me to the other part. The entertainment. Entertainment is fun. Am I correct? I’ve gotta be. If it’s no fun, obviously it’s not entertainment. It’s one of those phony game educational applications that kids have to be tortured to use. You definitely want the users to have fun. That’s the definition of your industry. That’s what it is all about.

Except for three kinds of people. They’re not fun people. They’re not even users. They’re abusers, you might say, because they don’t obey your rules.

First, gold farmers. Rip-off artists. The excluded. The black market. The pirates. Those are all the same guys. Same crowd. Invisible to you. They don’t want you to see them. And you don’t want to see them, either. Because they’re ugly, threatening parasites. But always there, always, from the very first days. They’re not accidents. They’re something important that you did not let yourselves recognize.

Second, griefers. Griefers have a game. They have entertainment. But it’s not your game. It’s their game, which is hate. Hatred and pain and sorrow and treachery and vandalism. Emotional involvement. The thrill of raw conflict. Grief. There are swarms of ‘em. Armies. They never travel alone.

Third—and these are the weird ones—the convergence culture people. They will play your game all right, but they play it while using six or seven other kinds of media. They don’t make any distinction between the media they use. They use the networks as a meta-medium. They don’t play the roles in your role-playing games.

 People play roles in Dungeons and Dragons because that is a paper game, it’s like little theater for the home. People play roles. You don’t see D&D people passing each other text messages and looking for cheats on wikis. Convergence people are metamedia people who are looking for meta-fun. Not your fun. Their meta- fun. Why are they important? Because they are you. You’re outside the game because you developed it, and they want to be in the same space that you are in. They’re super-knowledgeable game fanatics. They’re the people from whom you recruit your own talent.

 They’re not fun, these three kinds of people. Gold farmers are into greed, not fun. Griefers are into anti-fun. And metamedia are into meta-fun. They all exist outside your definitional box.

 And that’s why they ambush you and they beat on you. They’re not exactly your enemies, but they’re deeply alien to your chosen paradigm. So they have a kind of control over your destiny that you do not allow yourselves to have.

The only way to get ahead of them is to redefine yourselves as something that is not “computer entertainment.” Because their fun isn’t fun and their computers aren’t computers. They are cultural. They are more cultural than you. You’re an industry. They’re a culture. That’s why they kick your ass.

So—you know—how do we control these ugly parasites? How do we exterminate these weeds growing in our money crops? How do we repress them and make them go away for good? The answer is: you don’t. They beat you like the schoolyard bullies beat the kids who are good at math. You don’t get your revenge until you grow up, and you understand them much, much better than they will ever understand you. Living well, that’s the best revenge.

 So: I wish I could give you firm, clear answers for all your challenging problems. I can’t, and you know why? Because in my time, we’ve got our OWN problems! The year 2043 is not a place where we know everything about you. Mostly, we forgot about you.

 My world is older than your world. You’re old-fashioned, and we’re more sophisticated than you. That means we’ve got deep, serious, mature, sophisticated problems. Problems like greebles. And it’s not just greebles. We’ve also got wiggets and nurnies. The wiggets are kind of okay, but the nurnies, man, those are terrible.

I’d like to explain to you in full, grinding detail what nurnies and greebles are. I can’t. Because we just invented them. They’re brand-new, disruptive innovations. We don’t understand them ourselves. If we really got it about greebles, we wouldn’t have to make up ridiculous tech-terms like “greebles.”

But, well, that’s what we ourselves worry about. We don’t worry much about you. We made our peace with you because you are our respected ancestors. We’re human beings and we have to worry about ourselves. And boy, do we ever.

So. In conclusion. (Speaker looks at two watches, one on each wrist.) Time flies, huh? Wow! Well, the best way to create the future is to invent it. That’s a cliché, and you know that.But the best way to understand the future is to study the past. The past has much better clues for you than the future does. Because the future is just a kind of history that hasn’t happened yet.

Well, your past once involved a kind of futurist prophecy. A dark and painful prophecy that was made thirty-five years ago. And the prophecy came in two words: “towel designers.”

 Your industry was invented thirty five years ago. And it came out of the chute like a rodeo bull. There was a time, thirty- five years ago, when Atari was the fastest-growing company in American history. So, you know, Warner bought Atari. For 28 million dollars. An absolute fortune. Supposedly.

So, the Atari geeks went to confront their new boss, after Nolan Bushnell got pushed out and decided to sell pizza with robots. True fact. And the Atari geeks said, well, we’re creating all these marvelous high-tech games, because we’re engineer geeks and we can code. So, you know, how about cutting us in on these Warner millions, this fabulous wealth?

And their boss, who was a marketing expert for a big entertainment company, heard their demands. And he told them: No. You guys don’t control the computer entertainment business. We bought you, so we control it. You are our towel designers.

So: what did he mean by that? He meant that an Atari console was a factory. Not an artistic means of expression for artisans. It was a machine, a little factory. And he owned the factory. And the geeks were his factory hands. They could decide it the towels would have red stripes, or blue stripes, or maybe polka dots. But that was the extent of their value-add to that process. The promotion, the marketing, the distribution and the manufacturing were all in the hands of wiser parties. The labor force was making unjust demands. So, they should go back to the cubicle, knuckle down and make the towels.

Well, four of the geeks left the company and started Activision. That was the beginning of the end for Atari. Well, Atari’s not dead. And Warner’s not dead, either. But they’re nowhere near so well off as General Electric, who really gets it about housewares. Like towels.

What this long-forgotten prophet meant to say was: someday the computer entertainment industry would be big. Big enough, and stodgy enough, that it actually WOULD employ towel designers. There would be oceans of money and huge budgets on an industrial scale. There would be room for armies of creative guys who actually did create towels. Not visionaries, not game-changers, not guys reforming culture and changing the daily lives of people. Functionaries. Towel designers.

Now, I mean no disrespect to towels. I appreciate a craftsmanlike fabric design. It’s the future that’s got the big problem with towel factories. And that problem looks kind of like this.

(Speaker thrusts his tongue straight through a stretched paper napkin).

Creative disruption. Radical innovation. Real social and technological change. That’s the problem with predictable, consumer- friendly, stockholder-friendly towel factories. They’ve got smokestacks, and they suck.

So: you know: what kind of game developer is gonna do a rude thing like that? He’s ruined a perfectly good towel! The paper towel was kind of perfect and predictable! Now it’s got a big rude slobbery hole in it. Who does that?

It’s not someone who understands the future, because no guy or gal ever does that. We don’t even fully understand the past, much less the present. The kind of guy who can do that is shameless kind of guy, because he’s got the nerve to understand himself.When he looks in the mirror, he never sees an obedient functionary. You can’t chain him to the towel machine because his head is not a towel factory. He’s seen them come and go. Because, you know, in history and in futurity, that’s what they do.

And that is your heritage. That’s your great struggle. That’s what you face, and your behavior is what you owe to your predecessors and to the people who will come after you. That’s your life. It’s here all around you: it’s the here and now. You’ve got your hours on this earth, you’ve got your place in the great parade. It’s all yours, so live it. Live every hour.

Thanks for giving me one hour, ladies and gentlemen. I’ll be seeing you.


About the Author

Bruce Sterling is a well-known futurist, science-fiction writer, and blogger.

He presented this piece as a keynote address at the Game Developers Conference in Austin, Texas, on September 16, 20008.

In October 2008, Bruce Sterling will be the Visionary in Residence at the Sandberg Instituut in Amsterdam.

His new novel The Caryatids will appear in February, 2009.


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